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From heroes to zeroes

COBB Ron Shelton (18)

D'ARTAGNAN'S DAUGHTER Bertrand Tavernier (15)

JASON'S LYRIC Doug McHenry (18)

EXIT TO EDEN Garry Marshall (18)

As a young man, the greatest player that baseball ever knew had a trick (according to this movie, at least) of sharpening the spikes on the soles of his shoes just before a game, then making sure he ground them into the groins of fielders on the opposing team. He took bribes. He battered a heckler who had no hands: he was that nasty. Feted, in his dotage, in a Reno nightspot, he stepped on stage to address the adoring audience, then contrived to insult blacks, gays and Jews (those weren't, of course, the terms he used) all in one swift, well-turned sentence.

Cobb, the most interesting film of the week, is also, as is the nature of these things, the least commercial. Even in America, films about the country's national sport are a dodgy proposition (John Goodman recently bombed in Babe Ruth, another baseball biopic about Tyrus Raymond Cobb's main rival on the diamond); in Britain they're liable to strike out altogether. But Cobb is about baseball the same way Raging Bull was about boxing, which is to say, not much. The sport is a route into the heart of a wild, self-deluding, tragic protagonist. (As writer and as director, Ron Shelton seems oddly drawn to men past their prime, wallowing in failure: they pepper his work from the early comedy Best of Times to Bull Durham, Blaze and, recently, Blue Chip.)

The new film is set in 1960. Cobb is in his Seventies; he's been kicking his heels in solitary retirement for more than 30 years. Now, ailing and alone, he summons Al Stump, a successful sports writer, to his eyrie in the mountains to write his biography. It quickly becomes clear that he wants, not a Boswell, nor even a stenographer (although he intends to dictate his memoirs and has retained editorial control over the book), but a factotum, nursemaid and confidant.

As Cobb, Tommy Lee Jones seems at first miscast: he spends most of the film in wrinkly, liver-spotted make-up, but he's too young for these scenes and at the same time too old for those showing Cobb at the peak of his fame. But he sinks his teeth into the character, milking his cantankerousness for black laughs with expert timing (always waiting just a beat before delivering the final insult); his outrageous, operatic performance makes you wish this actor, typecast as a villain, were allowed more often to take a crack at comedy.

Robert Wuehl's Stump is a weak link; there's no faulting his performance, but, as a physical presence, he's a blob, a tubby loser in the Dan Ayckroyd mould. Plus his character is weak, lying first to Cobb, then to the world. The real-life Stump was involved in the film (and one wonders what he made of this not entirely flattering portrait), but it's still hard to root for him.

The temperature drops sharply in the home stretch: Cobb emerges not just as an eccentric sonovabitch but violent and even psychotic. The balance of power between the two men shifts imperceptibly away from Cobb (just as the film's centre of interest moves towards him); instead of hating him, we're invited to find him a pathetic, pitiable character. At a celebratory dinner, the guests watch a newsreel feting his life and, before his eyes (though only Cobb himself can see this) it turns into a cruel parade of his many skeletons. When his car pulls up outside his daughter's house, she draws the blind down. He becomes physically weaker; even sheds a tear, Shelton doesn't quite pull off the switch: Cobb, at the end, remains an unknown quantity. But the film contains many splendid moments along the way.

There's another ageing legend at the hub of D'Artagnan's Daughter, this time fictional: the musketeer emeritus (Philippe Noiret) plucked from retirement by his daughter, Sophie Marceau, to thwart a court cabal against the king. Marceau is a spirited swordswoman and looks terrific in breeches, but her character is sidelined for a long stretch and the relationship with Noiret remains disappointingly unformed. For a swashbuckler, the film is surprisingly wordy, often coming on like a stiffly filmed play. And much of it unfolds by night, in an opaque blue pea-soup haze.

If this seems an unusual movie to issue from Bertrand Tavernier, it may be because the original director, the 84-year-old Italian Riccardo Freda, left two days before shooting was due to begin. He had fallen ill, according to the press notes prepared for critics, although reports at the time in French newspapers suggested the real reason was friction with the actors on the set. As a result, Tavernier was obliged to start filming a project he had only intended to produce, ill-prepared and with many of the main locations still to find, which might explain the shambolic, poorly structured result.

Two complete duds. Jason's Lyric is an uneasy shotgun marriage between Vietnam trauma movie and kitsch love story. Forest Whitaker's bitter veteran blights his family and his son, years later, escapes into an affair with a fast-food waitress who plies him with quotes from John Donne and romps with him against a suite of over-coloured sunsets. Still worse is Exit to Eden, a caper comedy set in a holiday resort catering to specialist tastes, which manages to make bondage neither sexy nor funny. The writer, Anne Rice, who made such a song and dance a while back about the film of Interview with the Vampire has remained strangely silent on the subject of this turkey.

n On release from Friday